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Originally printed in issue #70 (October 2015) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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Clinical History:
Multiple instances of whiplash over a 15-year period. Neck pain for more than 12 years, excessive sinus and head pressure, numbness in shoulders, arms and fingers. Back pain.
Utilizing Siemens high resolution 1.5 Tesla MRI system, the cervical spine was imaged by the above described pulse sequences without contrast administration.
-Noticeably reduced normal cervical lordosis with secondary muscle spasm.
-C2-C3-C4 and C4-C5 central disc bulges are noted.
-Lower C5-C6-C7 spondylosis, greater at C6-C7.
-C5-C6 Moderately compressive right paramedian disc protrusion encroaching upon ventral surface of dural sac and relatively effacing right C6 nerve root.
-C6-C7 Biforaminal narrowing secondary to concentric disc enlargement.
-C7-D1 & D2-D3 shallow disc protrusions.

Fuck. Knowing you have a fucked-up neck, and KNOWING you have a fucked-up neck really are two different things. The very first thing the physical therapist said when she read my MRI report was, “Don’t panic.” I replied with almost a giggle, “I’d have been a hell of a lot more freaked if the MRI had come back clean!”

When I started flying camera back in 1996, helmets were starting to come together nicely, with composites and quick-release systems. Some of them are still in the air because of their really great designs. The Bonehead Flat-Top was the go-to helmet for a lot of camera flyers—a great system, to be sure—but my personal favorite and the only one I’ve ever owned was the Para-Raptor top mount. Light, streamlined and simple, it was (and still is) a kickass way to fly camera.

The Fuckin' Pilot's ginormous back-in-the-day camera setup. |

The Fuckin’ Pilot’s ginormous back-in-the-day camera setup.

The cameras, on the other hand … On top of my helmet was mounted a Sony Hi8 CCD-TR something-or-other which measured 13-by-9-by-7 inches and weighed in at just about 2.5 pounds. It had to be covered from lens to viewfinder in gaffer’s tape because if it wasn’t, the airspeed in freefall would make the videotape flutter so badly that the video wasn’t usable. You had to remove most of the tape to get the cassette out, and the battery either lasted for about 30 minutes, or had to be so large it would practically stick out past the back of the helmet. Mounted to the front, with the lens almost in the video it sat out so far, was my 35mm (that’s an actual roll of film for you younguns out there) Canon Elan II. The lens was a wide-angle, just about 6-by-6-by-4 inches and weighing in at just shy of 2 pounds. It was a front-heavy monster of a helmet to strap to your head on every skydive, and it was one of the lighter, more compact systems out there! If you’ve ever seen the “minivan” of Norman Kent’s setup, then you know he’s a true madman with a steel spine!

Norman Kent and his late wife Deanna on the set of "Drop Zone." Photo by Tom Sanders, <a href="" target="_blank"></a>. |

It takes two to make a thing go right. And to hold up Norman Kent’s gigantic camera setup. Norman and his late wife Deanna on the set of “Drop Zone.” Photo by Tom Sanders,

The jump I think that did the real damage (or at least contributed a huge amount to it) happened while shooting a tandem skydive in 2004 at Cross Keys. The cameras were a few years newer and an ounce or so lighter, but still heavy as … But otherwise, this was just another jump. I watched Mr. Mark Norman and his tandem student wave goodbye as they slowed through line stretch and opening, waved my feet as I backflipped over, spotted where I was, pitched and BAM!! Insta-motherfuckin’-canopy!

It was far from the first time I’d had a hard opening while shooting video (especially considering when I started flying camera I was jumping a PD 190) but never before had I seen stars! Hours later when I reviewed the video, it turned out I also made some rather unattractive noises … I didn’t just feel, but actually heard, every single vertebrae from my neck to the middle of my back pop, and had slammed my chin into my chest so hard that I ended up with a grapefruit-sized bruise between my nipples that lasted a week.

When I got my senses back from the train wreck and tried to look up and check my canopy, I couldn’t lift my head (mild panic … push that shit aside ‘til you’re on the ground). Luckily, both arms still seemed to work just fine, so I used one of them to push my chin up so I could see why I was slowly spinning (or was that my head …?) The first thing I saw, through a touch of tunnel vision, was a good six or seven line twists down to the risers, which I was actually able to kick out of pretty easily. But as I came out of the last one I saw the real issue: On the left side of my canopy, about three cells over from the center, was nothing but blue sky! I’d blown a hole in my Stiletto 120 from nose to tail, through both top and bottom skin, so big that I could easily walk through it if I were on the ground. No real choice to make. On the video you hear me say, “Here we go,” followed by the softest, loveliest reserve opening in the history of parachutes (thank you for that pack job, Simon!).

The PD 106 reserve put me down much more comfortably than I would have expected, and I’d still managed to beat Norman to the ground to film his landing. I vaguely remember hearing a few people cheering as I touched down; I found out later I got mad style points for kicking out of the line twists before chopping, as people were actually able to see the hole in my canopy from the ground. It had taken everything I had to hold my head up unassisted for my landing and I discovered that as I tried to film the tandem, I again had to use my hands to support it. As Norman’s canopy flopped on the grass in front of me I reached up, gave the camera a peace sign to say goodbye, and promptly fell over.

PD New Beginning

We had a chiropractor fun jumper at Cross Keys back then. He adjusted me half a dozen times that day. He had an M.D. wife who prescribed me Vicodin and Valium. I ate lots and lots of it. (The Vicodin/Valium mix made me feel well enough to back my truck into a telephone pole later that day). I of course had no insurance so alas, I didn’t get checked out properly. My neck has noticeably hurt every single day since.

Another neck-breaking camera setup from The Fuckin' Pilot's past. |

Another neck-breaking camera setup from The Fuckin’ Pilot’s past.

I was back in the air way too quickly after way too many hard openings and other injuries—just like everybody else was, ‘cause that’s what we do. I ignored the pain. I jumped. I ignored the pain. I lifted. I ignored the pain. I rock climbed. I ignored the pain.

All these years and all these jumps later, I stopped ignoring the pain and the sleepless nights and the tingling and numbness that came if I stayed in one position for too long, and the pressure in my head, and … The MRI report tells the story really.

Truth is, it could have been a hell of a lot worse, with a lot more damage. Doesn’t look like surgery is even on the table yet. Physical therapy, regular stretching, strength training, yoga … Lucky me! The real damage wasn’t actually done by the jumping, if you ask me. The real damage was done by my complete ignorance and lack of desire to look like the pussy who stood down ‘cause he had a hard opening, or because his back hurt, or he’d twisted his ankle, or a million other fucked-up things we all jump with on a daily basis for the million different reasons we do it.

Stretch. Take care of yourself. Listen to your body. Stretch. If you get hurt, get checked! Stretch. Fuck insurance, fuck the money, fuck the job. Fuck the sport for that matter! We need healthy skydivers to play with. Leave the Walking Dead for the TV.

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